Technology Pursuit

Blending Technology Into the Language Arts Classroom

Author: Melissa Pilakowski (page 2 of 16)

That Time When I Had a Formal Observation and on the Reflection I Couldn’t Decide If I Had Taught Or Not

My principal surprised me with a formal observation today. Three days of school left for seniors, so of course, today is the best day to be observed [note inserted sarcasm].

Seriously, though, my principal and I get along great and I warned him ahead of time that I didn’t know how productive we’d be with three days left of high school. I didn’t have any formal lesson planned, just independent reading time followed by worktime. Thankfully, my principal is the type of leader where he completely understood.

I’m not one who gets worked up about observations. I used to. I’d stress about it weeks in advance since we had to sign up for a day and time that we wanted the principal to come in. I’d try to plan something amazing for my students to learn, or maybe some fabulous presentations they’d give. Anglo-Saxon research presentations by students were my very first observation–I was so proud of myself for figuring out a way to be observed without actually teaching.

In some ways, you could say I wasn’t actually teaching today, either. There was no formal lesson. Three students alternated writing a collaborative story on an online game they’re beta-testing and working on their last vocabulary assessment (or let’s be honest, probably surfing YouTube when I wasn’t watching.) Another couple designed and planned their video reading responses. One wrote some refrigerator poetry. Two worked on papers and presentations for other classes. And one just read her book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

When I completed my post-observation reflection that asked me about how effective my teaching was, I drew a blank. At first, I thought, “I didn’t teach today.”

That’s the trick of the blended, quest-based classroom. It can feel as if I’m not really teaching. Just reading over shoulders, answering questions that arise, checking that seniors are on track to have all their work done to get signed out Tuesday.

It took me a couple minutes to remind myself I was teaching. I just wasn’t teaching to the stereotype of teaching that still looms in my mind: a wizened adult leading a lesson in front of rapt students.

But now, teaching is about providing a variety of opportunities for students. It’s juggling all the activities my students are doing because I know they’re more engaged and learn better when they control pacing and choose assignments. It’s meeting with kids one-on-one to explain a list poem or how to cite a source for their American history paper.

And teaching is also about all the front work I did to make this period work. It’s the set-up of different quests of creative writing students could choose from. It’s setting up a classroom culture of relaxed work with dim lighting and soft music.  It’s the relationships I’ve built through the year so I know which student to tease, which student to show some tough love, and which student to give a little bit more attention to because he doubts himself.

Teaching has changed, I preach to everyone time and again. Sometimes I need my own reminder, too.


The Easiest Classroom Daily Agenda EVER

For years I experimented with daily agendas for my students. Each year, I rolled out a new technique, from the whiteboard to a website, looking for the right one to stick.

Then I embraced the obvious, simplest answer: A Google Doc. Below is one of the agendas we are currently using this year.

I created one for each one of my preps. Each week I add a new table with the dates at the top, missing work in the left margin, and then a cell for each day of the week. One document lasts all year long, so in the first days of school, my students bookmark the page so they can click on it anytime.

This method has reaped benefits:

  • Any links my students need are available in one place.
  • Changes are easily made–so much easier than using webpages or slides.
  • Absentee students can always review what they missed.
  • Students have an overview of our journey and always know what to expect. Even outside of class, I see them on the agenda.
  • I don’t have to remind students about missing work. I keep a reminder section and link the assignment, as well.
  • Our school has “make-up slips” that students have to have signed before being excused for school activities. I never have to think what to write. It’s always the same: Check the Agenda.
  • I have a record of an entire year on one document. I refer back to previous years to compare pacing, refresh my mind about activities I used, or locate docs I can’t find in my Drive.

And let’s talk about the memes. They’re fun. I change them every week as well. They have no other purpose than to make everyone smile and look forward to the change at the beginning of the week. It’s all about building a culture of fun.

This is the fourth year I’ve used Google Docs for my daily agendas–and I don’t foresee changing it anytime soon!

7 Tips for Surviving Research Papers


Today I got to sit down with our two new teachers in my wing–let me get an Amen for the first year of teaching!–and love the fact that they are planning a collaborative cross-curricular research paper. Here were some of the tips we talked about…maybe you can find some useful.

1.Narrow Down Your Objectives. Don’t try to evaluate several standards at once. What’s really important to you? Our new teachers today decided organization was extremely important, as well as researching a variety of sources. I suggest making a rubric of 4 or 5 areas at one time. More than that and you’ll be overwhelmed in the end, and if your students do any reflection activities, they’ll be overwhelmed as well.

2. Don’t Skimp the Pre-Writing. This is essential. I use a variety of pre-writing strategies–T-charts, mind maps, post-it notes, sketched boxes, or a combination of all. Pre-writing strategies aren’t a one-size-fit-all. However, it’s important that all our writers have a plan. Before I let any student continue into a major paper, I need to see a (tentative) thesis with what their (tentative) main points are, as well as how they relate and prove the thesis. Later if students have problems, we can look at the pre-writing together and better see how to resolve it. Seriously: Take just as much time to lead pre-writing activities as you would expect students to write.

3. Accept that Research will be MESSY. Provide students with more than one way to keep track of research, such as Google Keep, Google Docs, Evernote, and traditional post-it notes.  Then allow them to choose or experiment with their own system. This process will be messy. Students will lose track of where they are, lose their source, lose their notes in the depths of their Google Drive. But if we want students to find a system that works for them, we need to let them muddle around. We as teachers need to go into the process knowing it will be messy and that students will make mistakes.

4. Rethink the “Word/Page Count”.  Don’t set an arbitrary number. Instead, think about it. Do you want at least a page for each main point? Then add an intro and conclusion, and you’re looking at four pages. But also consider what your students are able to do. This afternoon we talked about how wide-ranging our students’ abilities were; some could handle six or more pages, while others would be challenged by writing a full two pages.

5. Create a Differentiated Menu. This idea arose when talking about how to challenge the higher achievers. To do this, we sketched out a rubric with requirements for an A, a B, etc. To reach that “A” level, their students need to complete a higher number of pages, a wider variety of sources, and a direct quote integrated into each main point.


6. Don’t put points on your rubric. I find that the more points you put on a rubric–points for each category, for example–the stricter and more complicated your grading gets. I recommend either a 3- or 4-level rubric. While I follow the 1-2-3-4 (1=little to no evidence, 4=advanced) format, we talked today about an A-D rubric for this project. However, I do avoid using any more points than this. Writing is subjective. It can’t always be whittled down to points. Plus, totaling up points for four or five categories takes time and slows you down. (Better yet, complete the rubric and then conference with the student about their final grade.)

7. Make videos for mini-lessons. Students aren’t ready to learn how to integrate quotations or format in MLA style until they reach that very moment where they need it. Use Screencastify or Screencast-o-matic to record mini-lessons for these skills. Some students still will try to ask questions rather than watch the videos, but I refer them to the video first and then allow them to ask questions. Most of the time, I don’t hear from them again because the video has done its job. Many teachers cringe at the thought of making a video, and I get it! But also consider how many times do you want to teach the same lesson? Plus, you gradually build a library of videos over the years.


I’m sure there are hundreds of other tips to writing research papers.  Feel free to add them below!



Requisition Time: What I Order for My Classroom

Our requisition orders were due this week. Crazy early, it seems, with a solid six weeks left of school this year, but that’s the way we roll. Here’s a glimpse of what I order each and every year for my classroom.

  1. New book collections. Environment impacts students, and if we want students to read, we have to surround them with books. A school library is not enough. Each year, I add 30-50 books to my classroom library through requisitions. I order through BMI Educational Services  and get the New Title collection and Best New Fiction collection. This gets me a huge variety of books. Any books that I already have in my classroom–I do purchase a lot throughout the year–I give to another teacher in my department.

2. Classcraft. For $96, you get all the bells and whistles, and that includes the Quest feature, which is go-to tool for teaching. I set up learning paths for our units, and students follow their own path and move at their own pace. Most students also like the pets and outfits for their avatars, but those are just an added bonus. The quest feature is the best choice-based/quest-based learning tool I’ve seen.

3. PearDeck. Even the free version of PearDeck is pretty slick, and if you haven’t played with the Flashcard Factory, then put that on your to-do list next time you teach vocab. For the premium version, you also have access to the drawing and draggable features, which I love when I’m providing direct instruction of grammar. Other (free) perks is integration with Google (and a new PearDeck add-on that allows you to edit right in Google Slides) and a self-paced option for students to use as “homework.” The last aspect I love is the ability for students to try different sentence structures, and I can show them anonymously on the projector screen and point out strengths and weaknesses with no one needing to feel bad if they made an error.

4. Publishing Costs. While Padlet, the Google Suite,, and other free online sites can publish student work for free, I always set aside money to publish a genuine, tactile glossy magazine each year for my college comp students. No matter how much students have published online, owning a professional looking glossy literature journal always feels more “real” to them. Plus, I order a couple extra for the school library and our English classrooms. They’re great models to new college comp students.

5. Markers, Post-Its, and More. Even though my students all have Chromebooks, nothing replaces hands-on work, especially early in the creation process. I use Post-It notes liberally and have students practice using them for some pre-writing. And no classroom is complete without lots of markers.

6. Games. Just as I grow my book library, I also grow my game library with a new game or two each year. OK, more than that, but the rest I purchase on my own. I choose games that are either easy to modify for class or that specifically connect with a concept I teach, such as the Hero’s Journey.

7. NoRedInk. This last one is specifically for ELA classrooms. In this website, students move punctuation or words around–no multiple choice here. I’m not a fan of most of their static lessons, but the few interactive tutorials they have a pretty good. I use PearDeck to teach the concepts and practice different sentence structures, and then students use NoRedInk for reinforcement and assessment.




The Problem with Quiz Bowls

I had fun today. I served as a quiz bowl judge for our conference competition. The amazing facts that high school kids could answer–and I couldn’t–blew my mind.

I also struggled today. This competition is supposed to be our answer of promoting and challenging our schools’ greatest minds, and 98% of the questions didn’t get past the Maslow’s lowest level of recall.

Instead, they answered random trivia questions about 1984, nuclear energy, litotes, and Ptolemy. Except for a handful of math questions, nothing provided any deeper thinking beyond DOK1.

Is this really the best way we can challenge our best minds? With a competition to determine who is the greatest fountain or worthless knowledge? With a competition that is often done in conjunction of many beers at the local BW3s?

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of owning both the Trivia Crack and Jeopardy apps. If you have a trivia night with wine, I’ll be there an hour early to get started. However, let’s call these games for what they are: Escapism.

Playing trivia games does very little to develop our critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills. Instead, our sponsorship of quiz bowls is only glorifying students who HAVE the most knowledge, rather than those who USE the knowledge best.

I propose we eliminate quiz bowls and replace them with competitions that will improve and truly display amazing student thinking, with competitions that will push students up the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy. There are already better options in schools, such as Math Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind, Destination Imagination, and probably hundreds of others I don’t know about. Let’s promote these formats.

Instead of asking low-level questions, let’s provide challenges:

Maker Challenges: Think Marshmallow Challenge, or bridge building. Perhaps provide the same materials to each team and require each one to build a Rube Goldberg machine.

Breakout Challenges: Pretty obvious here. Which team can solve the fastest?

Visual or Tangible Puzzles: Again, races for each team to solve the fastest.

Story/Situation Problems: Involve math, involve logic, but solve the problem.

There are already so many TV shows using these mental games. Big Brother, Survivor, and Idiotest all have games that involve these deeper thinking challenges.

Maybe it’s time we take a lesson from our TV reality shows and make our students’ academic competitions just as challenging as those on TV.

Google Vocab Challenge

I’ve always been jealous of social studies teachers and the games available to them. One game I especially envy: the global draft game, where students draft countries and then compete by the number of mentions or hits the country gets each week on Google.

How could I exploit this for ELA usage? After much pondering, I decided a draft-based game would work best with vocabulary, where teams could draft words that they liked best.

However, we couldn’t just run the words through the Google stats and see how many hits they get–not much learning there. Instead, I modified the game by presenting a key word, such as “mathematics” or “Fortnite” and asking each team to select a vocabulary word that they’d drafted to pair with that word. Then I typed in the key word and their chosen word. The vocab word that earned the most number of hits with that key word–wins!

At first, my students were skeptical. But once that first round was over, the energy built. Several classes commented at the end how we should definitely play that game again.

Here is what I love about the game:

  1. Students have to talk about the words before they draft them. This means they have to not only know the meanings but also consider the various contexts the words could be used.
  2. During the game, students make more connections between the key word and their own drafted words.
  3. Just the right amount of luck is needed. While knowledge of the word is helpful, sometimes another team simply has a better word with more hits. I witnessed many examples of teams gaining a lead but then falling behind. This level of luck led to that magical “flow” that kept students involved the entire game.


This is the slide deck I built for the first time we played the game.


The Card Game Game Jam

You want your students to learn a concept really well?  The go-to answer is….game jam.

Sure, game jams can start with a basic topic or theme and game creators can take it and run. Nothing wrong with that approach. In fact, amazing games can result.

However, a few more parameters can also create amazing games.

My seniors were getting ready to write rebuttals, which meant we needed to go over how to find problems in others’ arguments, which meant we needed to do some work with fallacies. I wanted students to be familiar with a few common fallacies, and I wanted them to practice analyzing many arguments and figuring out what the fallacy or problem was. Yet, I didn’t want to do a basic Q and A game–I wanted their thinking to be really embedded, and I wanted them to be able to talk about their thinking.

Bring on the game jam. Specifically a Card Game Jam!

First, I gave a 3-minute lecture on fallacies and then in pairs, students sorted images from The Little Book of Arguments with 7 oft-used fallacies.

Once they had a basic knowledge of the fallacies, I split them into teams to create game jams. Beforehand, I made four sets of fallacy type cards and one set of example fallacy cards for each team. I also provided dice, game pieces, notecards, and poster paper.

Teams first went to work designing their game and writing a set of instructions. Then they beta tested their game and adjusted directions as needed. Finally, the groups switched games, though each group left one member behind to teach the incoming group the game.

I imagined a traditional card game like maybe a blend of pitch and Apples to Apples, and yes, one group created a game of Go Fish. But one group created a Candyland inspired game, another designed a similar boardgame, and the last group created a Hedbanz-type game.

Some games were winners. Some, well, not so much. Groups talked about what they would’ve done differently. Some students said they wished I’d labeled the fallacy examples so the answers were clearer (though that was by design–I wanted them to discuss and decide for themselves).

This lesson required some front work. I printed some cards on cardstock, and others I laminated. Finding the fallacies definitely took time. However, this lesson is easily repeatable in future years with no work required.

And based on how easily my seniors are tearing apart arguments now–I think the game jam definitely achieved all I’d hoped for!



Financial Games Your Juniors and Seniors Should Play

I don’t teach financial literacy, but I have been offering two great games as side quests for my juniors and seniors in my ELA classes because they help my students start thinking more about their future finances.

  1. Time for Payback. This is my favorite of the two. Think of it as the Oregon Trail game with the college theme. The goal is to get through college without accumulating too much debt–but beware! Some of my students found that if they focus too much on saving money and working extra hours that they lose the game and “drop out.” This game is robust with lots of choices for students to make and also includes some simple mini-games to mimic the stresses of college, such as registering for classes and balancing your time.

2. Claim Your Future. While not as robust as Payback, this one focuses more on careers and salary. Players still have budget choices, such as housing situations and food budget. While Payback is best for students considering college, Claim Your Future is great for ALL students, including lower-ability students who might be living with their parents for a time after graduation (there is an option for that in the game, too).

Juniors and seniors know about debt and finances. But often, they don’t think about how the choices they’ll be making this spring and summer could be making huge impacts on their future finances.  These games prompt students to think about those choices and decisions now.

5 Ideas to Start the Semester

I’m always faced with a dilemma the first few days of the spring semester. Students are busy rearranging schedules, so I have students switching sections and often at least a few brand new students coming into my class for the first time. (And depending on your school, you may be getting completely brand new students).

I hate to jump into heavy content lessons in these first few days because of the schedule changes, so each January I’m faced with the conundrum of what to do those opening days.

Without further ado, here are five strategies I’ve used over the years.

  1. Breakout/Escape Game. This is my plan for the first day back this semester. My Brit Lit students will be reading Macbeth, so they’ll be playing a modified version of Unlocking Shakespeare. My College Comp students are continuing their persuasive writing, so they’re playing a modified version of this Ethos-Logos-Pathos game. I love creating my own Breakout games, too, but with a plethora of these games available now, it’s also super easy to take another pre-made game and modify it to meet your own needs.

2. Marshmallow Challenge. Another great option, especially a day or two into the semester, for building both relationships among students and for encouraging innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. While this may not be focused on any content area, it’s a great activity to set the tone for your classroom. Plus, it can be adapted to many content areas. For my own area, we reviewed expository paragraph structure by writing reviews about the activity.

3. One Word. You’ve likely seen–maybe even participated–in Jon Gordon’s One Word movement, where you select one word that will be your touchstone for the year. Now take the next step and do it with your students. Find out more about how I did it in this post.

4. Social Collaboration Game. Start the year with a little fun and get your students socializing and critically thinking. One of my students’ favorite games last semester was Two Rooms and a Boom. While you can purchase the published version, you can download the game digitally–it just takes a little more work cutting apart cards. Mafia is another similar game that can be played with large classes. If you have a smaller group, you can check out One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

5. Game Jam. Let your students create a game! All you need for a basic game jam is some materials such as markers, poster board, notecards, dice, baskets, whatever you have around your classroom. I prefer to give the students a few parameters, such as a theme, or a few rules, such as it can’t be a basic Q/A game. Parameters can be extremely helpful for them, especially if it’s the first time they’ve ever created a game; otherwise, they may be overwhelmed by the options. Then, you’ll of course need a second day for the students to play each other’s games! For more information, check out The Game Jam Guide.

Morphing Your Students Into Heroes

The Hero’s Journey has been a mainstay in entertainment ever since George Lucas picked Joseph Campbell’s brain about his study of mythology and then transformed the Journey into Star Wars.

The entertainment business has been capitalizing on the Hero’s Journey for decades. Why hasn’t education boarded the train yet?

That’s a question Trevor Muir poses in The Epic Classroom.

Muir describes how he and other teachers have framed their project-based units of learning to loosely follow the Hero’s Journey.

The Old School Journey

Sadly, most of my own K-12 learning — and more of my own teaching units than I care to admit — follow a very sad, very dull journey.

First, teachers introduced the unit. This usually entailed the words, “We’re starting a new chapter today in our textbook.” Followed by notes, and if we were lucky, a — wait for it — video!

Notes and lectures led us up a mundane path of (not so) rising action to the climax: A TEST! Because nothing excites an adolescent so much as answering multiple choice questions on a beautiful 70 degree day.

Finally, the denouement: The tests are handed back! Questions are gone over. Then tests are generally turned back in so that future students don’t know what’s on them.

Making Learning Truly Epic

Trevor Muir’s The Epic Classroom challenges teachers to rethink about units of teaching by ramping up the essential points in the Hero’s Journey and making students excited for the projects that await them. In the book, Muir describes how he finds a theme in each unit and connects it to a potential service project in his city. He doesn’t necessarily have the entire project planned; he allows the students to do some of the planning footwork with him.

A new unit starts with the inciting event. For Muir, it’s often a guest speaker, but if we harken back to Dave Burgess’ classic Teach Like a Pirate, teachers can find plenty of other ways to hook a class. A quick field trip, either literal or virtual; a powerful game or role-playing activity; a mystery for students to solve — an inciting event needs to lure students down the rabbit hole of the unit.

The biggest component of any novel or movie is the rising action, and during that rising action, we want conflict — some twists and turns that we don’t see coming. If we see them coming, that’s when we put the book down or flip off the movie. Same goes with our units. Structure is important, but too much predictability and students disengage. Sometimes we need to flip the structure of the class, use a new app, or better yet: Ask students for what’s getting dull in our classroom and how that can be spiced up!

Then comes the all important climax. I hate to admit how often in my career that the climax has been…a test. My claim here is not to call for complete test elimination (though I advocate for as few as possible), but instead to create a climax that’s important for the students. Trevor Muir’s unit climaxes are the presentation of his students’ projects to authentic audiences. The word authentic is important. We can’t continue to isolate ourselves inside of our protective classroom walls. If we want students to feel like heroes, like they accomplished something worthwhile, it needs to be promoted outside of school.

Finally, the denouement. The hero returns to his old world, except it’s not quite the same because the hero isn’t the same. What discussion, reflection, celebration can we plan for our students to wrap up a unit of learning? How can they share their thoughts with their colleagues? A unit needs to end with more than passing back the test; like a movie or a book, we need to clearly end a unit with our students, allow them to give final takeaways, and celebrate what they’ve accomplished.

We as humans love story. The structure is innately built into us, and we learn better through narrative and purpose. By tweaking units with Trevor Muir’s ideas, we can make our classrooms truly epic.

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